The “Premier Family Form”: Ideology, Shaming, and the Misleading Use of Science

Mother_and_Child_-_Neak_Pean_-_Angkor_-_CambodiaAt my “Living Single” blog, I shared the results of the Family Story survey that showed that more than 70 percent of American women believe that a single parent can do just as good a job as two parents. “Research suggests they might be right,” I said. Nicole Rodgers, the director and co-founder of Family Story, noted, “The family is evolving, and what we are seeing is this survey, in part, reflects women’s liberation from one narrow path. That’s a good thing.”

Over at the Institute for Family Studies, Alysse ElHage did not think this was a good thing. She proclaimed that “messages like ‘one parent is just as good as two’ … are misleading and harmful.”

The case she made was ideological. She pointed to scientific findings but seemed to lack an understanding of some of the most fundamental tenets of research methods and interpretation. I think she also shamed everyone who is not part of what she deems “the premier family form for child well-being,” which is married parenthood. (On social media, she insists that she is not shaming anyone but just telling it like it is: single-parent families are inferior to married-parent families, and it is important to get that message out there.)

“Her Best Was Not Enough”:  How Alysse ElHage Talks about Single Parents and their Children

The people most often disparaged in the author’s article were single parents and their children. Let’s look at some examples of how she talks about them. I’m going to set in bold Alysse ElHage’s words that do the most important work in shaming single parents.

The prevailing belief that one parent can do just as good a job as two, she says, “should disturb us.” We should be especially upset because, she claims, “it’s women and children who suffer most from the absence of marriage.”

ElHage tells us that her mother raised her as a single parent and is now raising a grandson, again as a single parent. Her mother is worried about raising her grandson on her own. “How can she protect him from the suffering her own children experienced, and how can she fill the hole in his heart left by his absent parents? With years of single motherhood behind her, she realizes that her best was not enough…her grandson is now suffering from the repercussions of father loss in his own mother’s life.”

Next, ElHage discusses a book of essays by women “who lost their fathers to death, divorce, or abandonment.” She acknowledges that many of the women “enjoy successful careers and families today.” You know that’s not going to end with, “congratulations!” Instead, ElHage wants us to understand that sure, they may be successful, but each of the women is “missing her father and suffering from his absence.”

Suffering, suffering, suffering, suffering.

No one wants to suffer. But children of single parents will in fact suffer. And apparently, it’s their parents’ fault. They are the ones who are driving holes into their children’s hearts by not getting married or staying that way. Sure, they may mean well, but their best is not enough.

Do You Realize Who Else ElHage Is Disparaging?

Next, ElHage goes on to tell us that children don’t just need their mother or their father, they need both of their parents. Mothers and fathers, she believes, make unique contributions.

Do you see what she’s doing? Without ever using the phrase “same-sex marriage,” ElHage has disparaged same-sex parents as well as single parents. Their children are not getting the unique contributions of a mom and a dad, and so, she seems to be implying, they are getting an inferior life, too. Marital supremacy isn’t just about marriage; it is about heterosexual marriage.

Having a mother and a father also doesn’t meet Alysse ElHage’s standards if they are cohabiting. They have to be married, or else their kids, too, will never win First Place in the Best Children Sweepstakes.

To meet Alysse ElHage’s ideological standards, you need a mom and a dad who are married. And they better have gotten married before they had any kids.

Are you sympathizing with Alysse ElHage, thinking that maybe what she wants for children are more adults in their lives who care about them? I would be open to that argument. I’m all for children having lots of people in their lives who are there for them and who believe in them.

But that’s not her argument. Remember, two parents still constitute an inferior family form if they are cohabiting but not married. Two parents are also inferior if they are married but they are both men or both women. The argument is not about numbers, it is about ideology. If kids have two parents who care about them, that’s still not good enough if they are not the “right” kind of parents.

The argument is even worse than that. It disappears important people in the lives of children who do not meet ElHage’s ideological requirements.

Beyond Shaming: Some of the Significant People in the Lives of Single-Parent Families Are Completely Ignored

Alysse ElHage’s mother hopes that “the support of family and the faith community” will help her grandson “overcome” his inferior childhood as a child with no father in the picture.

It’s a hope, but Alysse ElHage does not seem convinced. My impression is that she thinks most single mothers are raising their children single-handedly, or that the people who are helping them just don’t count for much. If there is no husband around, a man who is the child’s father, then ElHage seems to think that the child’s life will be inferior.

I interviewed single parents for How We Live Now. One was a single mother who adopted a child, and asked 12 family members and close friends to be her daughter’s godparents. They were there for her daughter in ways big and small. Another was a single mother who wanted to share a home and a life with another single mother and her kids. That model worked so well, she went on to create CoAbode, an online platform and resource center used by tens of thousands of single mothers looking to do the same thing. Other single parents live in cohousing communities, where their children grow up in a whole neighborhood full of adults who get to know them and care about them. Other single mothers and fathers come up with more informal ways to create their own villages of people who are there for their children.

But those children are not being raised by married parents, so they don’t meet the requirements of what Alysse ElHage calls “the premier family form.” Their lives are not top shelf; they are inferior. I will reiterate Alysse ElHage’s position that she is not shaming anyone. To her, it is just a fact, and an important one, that there is just one premier family form and all the others just don’t measure up.

How Do You Think the Children Feel About What Alysse ElHage Is Saying?

I understand that divorce, or the absence of a father, can be painful for children. I understand that it can be valuable to acknowledge that pain, and to realize that other people share it.

But I object to the presentation of that story as the only story of the experiences of children raised by single mothers. And I object to the insistence that the lives of these children are inferior to the lives of the children of married parents. I object to ElHage’s wish that the next generation get indoctrinated into her ideology of marital supremacy.

The narrative of the inferior child of single parents can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those kids are hearing the message of Alysse ElHage and other marriage supremacists. They know they are expected to mess up.

Sometimes I hear from those children. One of them, a high school student I’ll call Elizabeth, was writing a research report on children of single parents. She said she found “many articles that stereotype [them] as delinquents and failures” and that those stereotypes “have the support of the general public’s opinion and that is what is most hurtful.”

This is her wish:

“I feel that people need to take a closer look at those around them because I believe there are many more stories of children of single parents like myself, who, despite the criticism, have worked hard throughout life to make myself not only equal with others but to have the potential to exceed expectations that are set for ‘normal’ children of two parents.”

Elizabeth wrote that to me in 2013. Unfortunately, four years later, people such as Alysse ElHage are still writing articles filled with the same assumption that Elizabeth just isn’t going to do as well as those other kids raised in “the premier family form.”

I don’t think ElHage means to hurt people such as this smart, motivated, successful child of a single parent. I don’t think she set out to hurt other children of single parents, such as those whose parents died, some while serving their country. But I think she is hurting them.

The Sop

After ElHage has shamed single parents, derogated same-sex parents by implication, and erased the important people in the lives of single parents and their children who do not fit into her preferred ideological box, she then says that she doesn’t mean to disparage single parents.

Next, she says that a single-parent home can sometimes be better than an available alternative, such as “an unstable family.” Still, she wants you to know that even if you are doing the best you can with what you have, you need to keep in mind that your family is inferior. Maybe you think your family is loving, but it is still “broken.” It is, in her opinion, “misleading and harmful” to say that one parent can be just as good as two.

Alysse ElHage Makes Scientific Claims. Is She a Scientist?

Alysse ElHage is making claims about social science findings so I was interested in her scientific credentials. According to her LinkedIN profile, she has a bachelor’s degree from Covenant College, whose mission is “to explore and express the preeminence of Jesus Christ in all things.” She also has a masters’ degree from Regent University, “the nation’s academic center for Christian thoughts and action.”

It appears that her training is religious rather than scientific, and she has no Ph.D.

The organization she is writing for is itself ideological. The Institute for Family Studies proclaims: “The fact that roughly one in two children in American grow up outside of an intact, married family constitutes one of the most significant threats to America’s future stability and prosperity.” Single-parent families are not just ruining children, they are destroying America.

These kinds of considerations are not disqualifying in and of themselves. I think it is possible to have a strong ideological bias and still be able to conduct and interpret scientific research in a rigorous manner. I think it is also possible for someone without doctoral level training in the social sciences to figure out the scientific method on their own. In fact, I think many people who have never taken a single class in the social sciences or in research methods still understand some very basic principles, such as the difference between correlation and causation.

What about Alysse ElHage? What does she understand about science?

The Science of Single Parenting

Alysse ElHage does not think her argument is about ideology. She thinks it is about science.

She points to W. Bradford Wilcox, who points to other researchers, who claim that “children raised by two biological parents in a stable marriage do better than children in other family forms across a wide range of outcomes.” She wants us to believe that just about every aspect of a child’s life, from their safety right down to the length of their telomeres, is superior if they fit the model of marital supremacy – meaning that they are raised by their own two married biological parents. (So I guess she thinks adopted children are inferior, too.)

One of the key issues is that, unlike many people who have no relevant training whatsoever, ElHage does not seem to understand some of the most basic tenets of research. She seems to think that if some studies show that children of married parents do better in some ways than children of single parents, that means they are doing better because their parents are married.

This is the Magical Miracle of Marriage belief system. Get married, and you and your kids will have achieved the “premier family form.” Get divorced or widowed, and too bad for you and your kids – now you are inferior. Marriage is the one and only factor that ElHage describes as the key to good outcomes, the one she thinks that we and future generations should focus on.

The Magical Miracle of Marriage: How It Works

Let me explain how this works. ElHage thinks kids are safer if their parents are married. Let’s assume, for the sake of this argument, that she is right that the children of married parents do better than the children of single parents in some of the ways she is claiming (though she cannot be counted on to get things right, as, for example, when she claims that it is women who suffer the most from the absence of marriage). If it is marriage that causes children to be safer, this is what that means: If a woman is going out with a man who is abusive, and she marries him, then he will be less abusive. Remember, according to ElHage, marriage causes all sorts of good things to happen and makes bad things less likely to happen. It is the Magical Miracle of Marriage.

Same with telomeres (“shortened length,” ElHage claims, is “linked to adverse health outcomes”). The causal interpretation is that if a cohabiting couple with kids gets married, their kids’ telomeres will grow. If they then get divorced, the telomeres will shrink.

Maybe all this is true. Maybe marriage causes such changes. Maybe nothing else matters more.

Does Marriage Cause Children to Do Better? What Other Explanation Is There?

Let’s think about this. ElHage believes children of heterosexual married biological parents do better than children of single parents because they are in “the premier family form” and all that it has to offer – the unique contributions of mom and dad and all the rest. But aren’t there other reasons, that have nothing to do with that?

Here are just two possibilities:

First, the married-parent families are supported more generously than single-parent families. For example, at the federal level alone, there are more than 1,000 laws that benefit and protect only people who are legally married. Some of those benefits include substantial financial advantages. Maybe the children of single parents would do better if they and their parents were not so massively disadvantaged by the laws and policies of the land.

Second, maybe the reason the children of single and married parents differ is because they are accorded different values and expectations by people like ElHage (who wants to separate families into the Premier ones and all the rest) and by society more generally. If single parents and their children were not stigmatized, if they were just as highly valued and respected as the children of married parents, maybe there would be fewer differences, smaller differences, or no differences at all. Or maybe there would be more ways in which the children of single parents would do better.

If the love and support of two heterosexual married parents, the biological parents of their children, really were the kinds of factors that mattered most, then the children of married parents should do better than the children of single parents all around the world. But they don’t. In some nations, in some ways, they do the same, and in others, it is the children of single parents who do better. Maybe policies matter. Maybe cultural attitudes and practices matter. Maybe the U.S. needs to do better.

It is not even necessary to look to other countries to see that the children of single parents sometimes do just as well, or even better, than the children of married parents. For example, the adolescents of never-married mothers raised in multi-generational households do better than the adolescents of married parents in nuclear family households: they drink and smoke less, and they are more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college. (I described other examples in Singled Out and in Single Parents and Their Children: The Good News No One Ever Tells You.)

Alysse ElHage did not like my claim that children of single parents can do just as well as children of married parents. So I will modify it. Sometimes they do better.

Even the studies showing that children of married parents do better than children of single parents are not as damning of the children in the supposedly inferior family form as ElHage would like us to believe. The results are averages, and often the differences between the children of married parents and single parents are small. Even without access to the relevant data, I can guarantee you that in every large-scale study that has ever been conducted, some of the children of the single parents did better than some of the children of married parents. There is no Magical Miracle of Marriage.

What If We Followed Children, Starting Before Their Parents Got Divorced?

The reason we cannot know for sure if marriage causes the children of married parents to do better than the children of single parents is because children cannot be randomly assigned to different family forms. But within the kinds of studies that can be conducted, some are better than others.

For example, many studies compare the children of divorced parents to the children of married parents at one point in time, and find that the children of married parents are doing better. A better sort of study, though, would follow the same children over time, to see how they are doing before and after their parents divorce.

As I discussed in Singled Out, one study that followed children for more than a decade found that for some children, “the problems began to materialize as early as twelve years before the divorce. The difficulties, then, did not spring from the soil of single motherhood, they developed under the roof of two married biological parents.” A review of the relevant research found that if you want to find children who are struggling, look for families that are “characterized by conflict and aggression and by relationships that are cold, unsupportive, and neglectful.” That’s more telling than counting the number of parents and checking to see if they are heterosexual and married.

Poverty and the Magical Miracle of Marriage

ElHage reiterates a popular claim of the marriage supremacists, that marriage “protects children against poverty.” So if a single mother with a job that just barely covers expenses were to marry a flat-broke unemployed man and welcome him into her home, her children would somehow be magically protected against poverty, because now she is married.

As Nicole Rodgers noted in her brilliantly argued op-ed, “financial security helps children more than does any particular family form.” She concluded that “it will never be realistic or reasonable to expect people to marry themselves out of poverty. More important, no one should have to.”

What’s ElHage’s Call to Action? More Shaming

At the end of her article, Alysse ElHage gets right to the point of what needs to be done:

“We have a responsibility to continue to promote married parenthood as the premier family form for child well-being. Younger generations deserve to hear that, on average, children do best when they are raised by their own mother and father in a stable family – and this stability is more likely to occur in marriage.”

Oh, and she also thanks her mother for admitting that as a single parent, her best was not enough.

That’s it. Alysse ElHage’s call to action is to promote married parenthood. Make sure the younger generation learns this ideological lesson.

After reciting one way after another in which the children of single parents supposedly face more obstacles and risks than the children of married parents, ElHage does not seem interested in getting them the help she thinks they need. She just wants anyone who is not married, as well as their kids, to know that their lives are second rate. She wants the next generation to understand that, too.

Her solution, it appears, is more shaming.

Again, Nicole Rodgers has an important observation about this:

“If Alysse ElHage is really concerned about what’s best for kids, she should focus on solutions that have a proven track record of helping them, rather than spend time on hollow platitudes about respecting marriage or promoting married parenthood. The thing that makes me saddest is that the ‘solution’ she recommends seems to be belied by her own personal experience. She has said that her mother raised her alone after her parents divorced. In other words, her mother already respected and wanted married parenthood, but ultimately that’s not how life worked out for her. That may not have been in her control. How does promoting ‘respect for marriage’ make anything better for her mom, or any other mother doing the best she can in sometimes difficult circumstances?”

Ideology, shaming, and misleading claims about science are not what single parents and their children need. They are not what anyone needs. What we all need are serious policies and practices and values that support the dignity of all people, and do not make marriage a condition for access to benefits and protections under the law.

 

[Notes: (1) The opinions expressed here do not represent the official positions of Unmarried Equality. (2) The comment option on the UE website has been invaded by spammers, so I have disabled comments for now. I’ll post all these blog posts at the UE Facebook page; please join our discussions there. (3) For links to previous columns, click here.]

bella-ocean-backgr-347-dpi-smallerAbout the Author: Bella DePaulo (PhD, Harvard), a long-time member of Unmarried Equality, is the author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After and How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, among other books. She writes the “Living Single” blog for Psychology Today and the “Single at Heart” blog for Psych Central. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com and take a look at her TEDx talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single.”

About Bella DePaulo